Peter Lovesey and the solved problem
I picked up this affectionate tribute to Golden Age mysteries, Agatha Christie's in particular, as a change of pace, and I noticed early on how skillfully Lovesey captures the flavor and tone of an English country-house mystery while at the same time remaining thoroughly up to date.
How does he do this? First by making the jovial prince and the pretty hostess more explicitly randy than his predecessors in the Golden Age probably would have; second, by describing the pheasant hunt that is the occasion for the story's house party far more thoroughly than I expect a Golden Age author would have done:
"The planning for this week of sport had begun more than a year ago, and the arrangements couldn't be altered at the drop of a hat. What with loaders, beaters, stops, pickers-up, drivers and catering staff, we could be using more than two hundred personnel."The accumulated weight of these vignettes adds up to a startling picture of sybaritism, a portrait of long, hard work by many devoted to the idle and momentary enjoyment of a few. And yet they work as action and description without ever coming off as shrill, polemical, condescending or anachronistically knowing.
"The dead birds were tidily lined up for counting, almost two hundred pheasants, one of the gamekeepers said, bringing our day's bag past seven hundred."
"I waited, flanked by my loaders, picturing the activity in the coverts as the fugitive birds scampered ahead of the beaters. A pheasant has a natural reluctance to take to its wings, and it requires a well-managed beat to put it up precisely over the guns without flushing too many other at once."
"This battue was faultless. They presented the birds in a long, soaring sequence almost vertically above us. I worked with three guns, receiving from the loader on my right, firing and passing it empty to the other man, never shifting my eyes from the sky."
Why? Because Bertie describes the scene with an innocent eye. He does not know that what he sees might be appalling to the democratic and ecological sensibilities of today's readers. That distance safely allows us both to enjoy the scene and to be surprised, even shocked, by its waste and luxury. To put it another way, Lovesey has written the most socially authentic-seeming hunt scene I can remember in any crime story.
Lovesey appeals beautifully to current readers' sensibilities. At the same time, he maintains the atmosphere of a story composed in the past (that he does this all against yet a third layer of time, the story's 19th-century setting, is a matter for discussion elsewhere). What other authors do this?
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
Labels: Peter Lovesey